It was time for the start of another week and this time it was for the Alibaba workshop. We started off our first day with some lectures and presentations by the various university students and professors. Through this, we learned more about the business models and the people and universities that we were going to be working with. As we found out more about the various university students I soon realized that many were woefully underprepared for this workshop as it seemed that almost all the students outside SUTD were all either master’s or Doctorate students and they had done their research before coming for the workshop. It was going to be a very interesting time as being the least experienced in my group I was keen on what I could contribute.
After lunch, we proceeded to the Alibaba campus and shopping mall for a site visit. We started off the visit to the mall by visiting the supermarket of which they call HEMA. We soon learned that this entire mall was a testing bed for technology and ideas created by Alibaba. One of the more interesting technologies being employed was the ordering of groceries online and the employees in the store would package the items and supplement with an in-store delivery system which would move the bag from one place to another before delivering to the customer. Another idea being tested is the 24H food displayed idea. The food would be fresh and in-stock for only 24 hours and after which would be removed from shelves or sold to employees at a discounted rate.
We then proceed to a store that sold similar items to Muji except the store was wired up to be high-tech. The shelves had sensors to detect when an item was removed or placed back on the shelf in order to track how many items were taken or put back to gather data on customers preferences. They even had an interactive display that showed information about an item to the customer when it was removed from the shelf. The was quite impressed by all this technology being employed in just a simple store to gather data and improve the buyer experience but the most mind-blowing technology was still hidden in Alibaba campus.
It was now time to visit the Alibaba campus and during the visit, we were able to visit the future mart that they had in place. It was really super futuristic like something out of a science fiction movie. With just a short registration through the Taobao app, we were able to enter the mart. Now the special thing about the mart was that every item had a QR code and when you wanted to buy something all you had to do is to take the item, walk out of the store and the cost of the item would be deducted from your account. There was no need for scanning any QR code using your phone or anything like that. The way they did this was through the many cameras installed in the store and facial recognition technology. The cameras would constantly be tracking each individual and each item’s QR code and whenever an item is taken out of the store it would deduct the item’s cost from the individual. This was really what blew my mind, it was so amazing that they could do something like this and I think this will definitely be the future of offline shopping.
The next few days were spent working on our various topics with each of our teams. My topic was luxury goods. We started the project with some background research on the luxury market and if there were any problems we could find in the current system or additions we could do. We eventually settled on the idea of customization of luxury and over the few days together with advice from the Alibaba designers we slowly refined our idea.
Over a few days, we went go through over a few dozen ideas and iterations and it was really exhausting. Communication was one of the biggest challenges over the few days due to the fact that it was an international team consisting of Singapore, China, Japan and Korea and everyone had different levels of English. Although English was the main mode of communication, it was often very slow and many misunderstandings occurred when explaining ideas or opinions. We had often had to resort to drawing pictures and writing things down in order to explain to one another and guessing what each other meant. It was quick lucky that I and my teammate who was another Singaporean spoke 3 out of the 4 native languages of our team and we would often translate from one language to another to explain ideas or opinions of one person to another. From this experience, I really learned the power of drawings and pictures as well as how to better communicate with an international team. It was really felt as if we were playing charades and Pictionary every day but I feel we all improved and worked better each other as each day passed.
As we approached the final day of presentation, we still had not fully set on one idea and we were still trying to find a solution or idea that we could all agree with until we gained insight from Professor Makoto. He provided us with inspiration with an idea from our many ideas that we could all agree with and using that as a baseline we formulated our own unique solution. Having only finally agreed on a final idea only in the afternoon on the second last day, we worked tirelessly to not only work out all the details but also prepare the presentation. We pooled together all our creative talent, skills and time to create an animation of our application and our presentation.
It was finally the last day and our presentation at Alibaba and it went off without a hitch. After the presentation we were given a chance to tour the surroundings of Alibaba and after which proceeded for a team dinner and a good night of karaoke with our new friends!